CLASSICAL MUSIC Maxwell Davies premiere Queens Hall
Monday 04 November 1996
Those who knew Davies's music 30 years ago would not have imagined him entering an autumn of song, sentiment and atmosphere. But then, many people found it hard to believe that he would get through all 10 concertos commissioned by Strathclyde Region. Yet this concerto is No 10; and Strathclyde Region has ceased to exist.
There are long, spiritual laments and sonorous, low melodies, accompanied by glittering woodwind and snarling brass. There is a kind of simple drama, with the shriek of high trumpets and occasional military timpani. And continually, the clouds part to reveal pools of soft string harmony that lead to further passionate wind cantilena, set against moody tremolandi and framed by textures that are growling, shadowy, watery.
Davies, in his pre-concert talk, told us he had thought of the giuoco delle coppie from the Bartok work when he conceived his first movement. Certainly, the instruments tend to appear in pairs and groups rather than alone, but it lacks Bartok's systematic tour of the orchestra.
The second movement, a slow-motion sarabande accompanied by plucked chords in the cellos, with a long, meditative invocation for two flutes and a pastoral cor anglais, may recall Bartok's "interrupted intermezzo". Often there is a glow of rich harmony, as though the music were rediscovering the common chord. It is an elegiac landscape, a kind of sentimental nature music that may also have for its ancestors English composers such as Britten and Elgar.
The finale is in an emotionally lower key. It appears to be a continuous variation on what the composer calls a "silly tune", announced at the start by the piccolo. The skirl of Scotch snaps reminds you of Davies's biggest hit, Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. But where the earlier Davies might have bathed his Scottish reel melodies in bitter irony, this piece has a childlike pleasure in its own absurdism, rocking and rollicking with healthy good cheer.
And, in case anyone is still unable to believe in the composer's autumnal mood, there is finally a long valedictory passage in which each of the earlier Strathclyde soloists is given a short solo: oboe, cello, trumpet and horn, and so on up to the strange solo group of the ninth concerto (piccolo, contrabassoon, cor anglais). The whole work ends in a whiff of vapour, as though unwilling to close the door on this extraordinary series.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra played with brio, and the authenticity you would expect: all 10 concertos have been written with them specifically in mind.
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